Recollection: Frank Welch, FAIA

By the time I graduated from high school, I had begun to think about becoming an architect. I was visual, very influenced by movies and Life magazine. I liked to draw, but I was afraid of the technical courses that were required, the math and physics. There was no question but that I would go to Texas A&M, which was known as “the poor boys’ school.” I enrolled in the summer of 1944 as a liberal arts major and roomed with Paul Ellis, a good friend from Sherman who wanted to be a doctor. I managed to flunk algebra, and, at the end of the first semester, Paul and I decided to join the Merchant Marine, in hopes of avoiding the draft.

I was shipped to Catalina Island for training, where I managed to win a trip to Los Angeles by singing in the Merchant Marine Easter Choir, our big number being, “Were You There When They Crucified My Lord?” I made one cruise, crossing the Pacific, an experience I loved. I had been in the Merchant Marine for about six months when the U.S. dropped atomic bombs on Japan and the war came to an end.

Thinking the draft would end, I resigned from the Merchant Marine only to receive notice from the Selective Service that I had been called up. Paul had done the same, and we both decided we wouldn’t volunteer for anything in order to get out as quickly as possible; after 18 months, I was discharged as a corporal.

In the two years that I was away, Texas A&M changed dramatically. The total number of students on campus had quadrupled, many were veterans on the GI Bill—seasoned mature men with wives and babies who weren’t sympathetic to the Aggie military system of student cadet life. Couples lived in flimsy wartime housing or converted barracks buildings.

I had also changed and was more confident of myself. I’d seen something of the world—Washington, Los Angeles, San Francisco, the Pacific. While in the Army, I’d been stationed near Williamsburg, Virginia, and been to the Museum of Modern Art in New York and saw Broadway plays. I enrolled as an architecture student, not realizing that A&M was an outpost of modernism, the first architecture school in the region to adopt the bare-bones modernism developed at the Bauhaus in pre-war Weimar, Germany.

In 1935, an MIT graduate, Sam Zisman, introduced modernism to A&M. He was a brilliant, Jewish intellectual who put his stamp on the school during the 10 years he taught there. Under the Beaux Arts system at most architecture schools, students spent their time copying classical examples—exactly. They would make beautiful drawings, copies of classical floor plans.

But a sea change had taken place. A building should now respond to its particular place, design should be both rational and functional. Architecture, coupled with technology, could improve peoples’ lives. Modernist design might have been urbane and sophisticated, but also it appealed to the practicality of an agriculture and engineering school.

My first architecture design classes were held in a temporary building, a one-story barracks, near the campus’s North Gate. My teacher was Jason Moore, who taught fundamentals of design. Jason was tall and thin and slightly stooped and dedicated to the principles of modern design as inherited from the teachings at the Bauhaus. His job was to indoctrinate us in modernism regardless of our individual histories and predilections toward building design. I’m sure most of us considered a Southern Colonial house as the ideal model. Moore drilled us in his quiet way to think rationally not subjectively. Ornament was “sinful”; buildings had to be functional and express it in their designs. We worked on abstract patterns with drawings and paper collages and finally a three-dimensional articulation of an eight-inch cube of space. The first design problem I had was in the second year, for a piece of furniture: I submitted a lounge chair of tubular metal with each tube, forming a sitting surface, encased in foam rubber.

I eventually started design and history classes on the airy top floor of the domed Academic Building, the campus landmark. The students’ windows on the outside architectural world were the professional journals: Architectural Forum, Progressive Architecture, Architectural Record, and particularly, Arts & Architecture, published in Los Angeles and featuring small scale buildings and houses. Gordon Drake and William Wurster were California architects that practiced a low-key, regional sort of modernism, employing natural materials. Photos of their work were appealing to me. Other student architectural “heroes” were Ludwig Mies van der Rhohe, Philip Johnson, and particularly Eero Saarinen. Frank Lloyd Wright was out of fashion with the faculty and Le Corbusier was too distant and too hard to grasp for most of us. Our experience of architecture was through hearsay and the art of architectural photography. Slowly we absorbed and developed.

Many of Texas A&M’s faculty were veterans of the war and several were steeped in international style modernism as it was being taught at schools like Harvard and MIT. William Allen and William Caudill were standouts and taught the upper classes, Allen being the strongest purveyor of the International Style being taught at Walter Gropius’s Harvard. Sam Zisman and another modernist architect, Jack Finney, brought maverick Dallas architect O’Neil Ford as well as Richard Neutra of Los Angeles to the campus for lectures in the years before I was enrolled there.

There was a trickle-down effect from the MIT/Harvard profs: we slowly became confirmed modernists, eschewing the traditionalism in design that we had grown up with. Color disappeared in design presentations, precise India ink drawings and mechanical lettering in the Harvard mode became the standard.

Credit must be given to Ernest Langford, the scholarly and genteel head of the Department of Architecture who hired and backed these teachers and who, in his affable way, represented old-school architectural professionalism. Always in suit and bow-tie, his thinning, wavy red hair middle-parted, Mr. Langford stayed, most of the time, in his office at one end of the handsome, small library. (The library, with sloping, green leather-covered reading tables, was located behind the pediment of the Academic Building.) Langford called me in once and lectured me gently about the movie-going that I did; I had been spending fewer afternoons in the design “labs,” though it must be said that the students typically put off preparing their “boards” until the last minute when they would stay up all night. On another occasion he thought it well to advise me, “You can say what you like about another architect’s buildings, but you should never say anything personally derogatory about another architect.” I wonder what I had said?

Caudill, a rather down-to-earth Oklahoman, was a romantic modernist. (He once visited our junior design class when one of the students, a sweet, freckled face, country boy, asked, “Mr. Caudill, how come since we have central heating, why do we still have fireplaces?” Caudill quickly replied, “To warm our hearts.”) At the time, Caudill led research of building design at A&M by fabricating models of school prototypes and testing the models in wind tunnels for effective natural ventilation. For a while, I had an after school job in Caudill’s tiny office above a drug store. My attempt at building a pasteboard house model with a hipped roof was a failure. (I didn’t work there long.) The firm, Caudill Rowlett & Scott, eventually moved to Houston and became one of the largest architectural offices in the country.

Architect Charles Granger drove over from Austin and lectured students about charm and sex in architecture, outrageous takes on the modern movement. Walter Rolfe of Houston came once and in a lecture made the claim that unless you were a good dancer you couldn’t be a good architect.

Joe Tom Meador, from Whitewright in northeast Texas, taught architectural history in a colorfully effective but haphazard way; he often had the building dates wrong. Short of stature, with a slow swaying slightly slew-footed walk, Meador was as dapper and sophisticated as A&M faculty went. He had a demonic expression when he grinned. Many years later it was discovered that Meador, while serving as an Army officer, had helped himself to a hidden cache of medieval religious objects in Quedlinburg, Germany, at the end of the war. He casually displayed these jeweled pieces in his one room apartment on an upper floor of the campus YMCA. (Meador was deceased when his heirs tried to sell some of the treasures in the 1980s, causing an international scandal.)

Another professor, Harry Ransom, a suave, young, tweed-jacketed graduate of Carnegie Tech in Pittsburgh, was the teacher who, with his wife, Frankie, took me under wing socially. He was a confident, sophisticated, big-city guy who poured me my first martini. I was often included in the Ransom dinner parties and Frankie served great food. The first tossed salad I witnessed being prepared was at the Ransoms’ tiny, prefab wartime house. I was learning a lot about living.

Near the Ransoms, in another pre-fab house, lived A&M graduate and architect Willie Peña, a war veteran with a leg prosthesis. He worked with Caudill. Raised in Laredo, Peña had a winning, sunny personality and was well liked by everyone. I was lucky to be included when he would prepare enchilada dinners at his house for small groups of students where there was always lots of beer accompanied by Stravinsky, Rimski-Korsakov, and Gershwin on his custom-made stereo. It was heady, stimulating stuff. A lot of my education was clearly taking place off-campus; if not off-campus, certainly outside the architecture curriculum.

The Fountainhead by Ayn Rand was published and most of us devoured the big book of a fictional, idealistic architect based roughly on Frank Lloyd Wright. It was a fantasy that, I must admit, I accepted as real. A non-fantasy that I read later and gained more from was The House and The Art of its Design by Robert Woods Kennedy of Cambridge, Massachusetts. Kennedy, a witty modernist, wrote comprehensively about the architecture of a house in very realistic, non-ideological terms, even suggesting a questionnaire for new clients which might include an inquiry about a couple’s love-making habits. The book is illustrated with outlines, diagrams, New Yorker cartoons, Saul Steinberg drawings, eighteenth-century engravings, along with house plans and photographs. Kennedy cited West Coast architects William Wurster, Richard Neutra, and Pietro Belluschi, whose work also inspired me.

Around this time, I began to rebel against the conservative school administration and became a part of a non-architect coterie of English and history majors with, we thought, elevated and critical senses and intellectual pretensions: Bill Colville, Mack Nolen, Herman Gollub, and Chuck Maisel. All of us eventually worked as writers on one student publication or another. We were left-wing politically, I guess, though I didn’t know the term then.

Several of us made regular trips to Houston to hear nightclub entertainment: June Christy and Chris Connor at the Esquire Lounge; Nan Blackstone, the raucous pianist and female equivalent of Dwight Fiske, the number one singer/composer and recorder of bawdy songs. One weekend in Houston we saw the road company of A Streetcar Named Desire. I read the play Death of a Salesman in the YMCA lounge and, thinking of Daddy, shed hard tears over the final scene.

One of my literary, non-architect friends convinced me to take a one-hour elective on Great Books taught by Dr.Thomas Mayo, the head of the English Department. Mayo radically broadened the direction of my interests and thinking. Dr. Mayo (“Tommy” to his friends) was a pixyish, former Rhodes Scholar from Oxford, Mississippi, in his early sixties. He loved to tell stories about William Faulkner, another Oxford native. According to Mayo, when Faulkner complained to an Oxford old-timer that the critics liked his books but the public didn’t, the old- timer told him to write a dirty book so Faulkner produced Sanctuary. Wearing a rumpled suit and bow tie, Mayo reminded me of the rotund New York critic Alexander Woolcott; he waddled when he walked. Short, balding, and owlish, with a cigarette and its ash usually dangling from his lips, he brought the history of the world alive in literary terms. He had a way of removing his eyeglasses while he was lecturing and wiping them clean with delicate, dry fingers.

Mayo organized the Junto Club, a small group of students and faculty, with intellectual aspirations. The Junto met regularly in the YMCA lounge to discuss current literature; members took turns reviewing books. I became an enthusiastic but self-conscious member wanting to belong but feeling that I was out of my depth. When I reviewed a book about F. Scott Fitzgerald, my literary hero at the time, the presentation was terrible, marked by sweaty, nervous fear. I felt unqualified to be standing up in such company, doing an analysis on my favorite writer. It wasn’t helpful that Mayo didn’t like Fitzgerald much, thought he was a lightweight who spent too much time writing about rich people. My intellectual mentor was definitely on the side of a modern literature with a strong social conscience, like that of Theodore Dreiser or John Dos Passos. I remember also that he sort of dismissed Hemingway, my other literary idol.

Mayo, in his Great Books courses, illustrated that fine literature (poetry, drama, and fiction) was representative of its age. I was learning the same thing about the timeliness of architecture, that it must express the age in which it is created, and that modern architecture was the expressive architecture of the post-industrial age.

It was easy for me to relate Hemingway’s stripped-down prose to the lean, unadorned International Style modernist structures of that mid-century era. (Like myself, Mayo was a great movie fan; death came to him in a local movie house.)

I was, along with my literary pals, Colville and Gollub, soon working on the school paper, The Battalion (“The Batt”), where I met other “intellectuals,” Mack Nolen and Chuck Maisel. Writing balanced and complemented the architecture studies; there were similarities. The paper was edited under the leadership of its salaried director, a strange but brilliant man named Roland Bing. Bing was short and disheveled, with a large head and florid face behind smudged gold-rimmed spectacles. He walked with a limp and distractingly chewed furiously on a thumb with his rear molars while listening to you across his desk.

Bing taught me the fundamentals of reporting a news story: “who, what, when, where, why,” which was the professional key to learning how to express myself journalistically. I enjoyed these people and this extra work. I was writing articles and doing art work on what we ambitiously called a humor magazine, The Commentator. College humor magazines were a big thing in those post-war days and we jealously regarded the University of Texas’ The Ranger, as the best outside the Ivy League. A&M had no journalism school but we persevered and produced good publications. I was co-editor of The Commentator with Bill Colville one year. Houstonian Herman Gollub eventually became the senior editor at Doubleday Books in New York.

It was an older architecture student, however, who would offer me a glimmer of my future. Allison Peery was an upper-classman who befriended me before he graduated and went to work in San Antonio for O’Neil Ford, the best-known architect in Texas. Ford, an outspoken, colorful maverick with a reputation for controversial views, had helped establish Texas modern regionalism and pioneered experimental, modern structures. One weekend I went to San Antonio with the hope of seeing where Peery worked. At the time, I’d never heard the term “regionalism.”

Al Peery told me that Ford’s office was in a new, second-floor wing of an old stone house owned by his mother-in-law, Elizabeth Graham. Ford and and his wife, Wanda Graham Ford, and their four children lived there also. (Elizabeth Graham, a gentle lady, a pillar and founder of the historic conservation movement in San Antonio, had the house built from remnants of razed buildings.) It was called Willow Way and was located in a low-income neighborhood on 10 acres near the San Antonio River and behind San José Mission.

I drove out to the place late on Sunday afternoon, following a winding caliche road bordered with scattered dwellings and a small bull ring. A gravel driveway wound past tall, unruly clumps of Giant Reed and bamboo and small inexpensive structures: workshops, garages, extra little dwellings. An abandoned car body stood in the tall grass near the house. Peacocks paraded and pigeons cooed near where we stopped the car. It was almost sundown and very quiet; the place seemed abandoned. A mixture of stone and tile formed an open parking area where an early-model MG convertible stood.

A contemporary wing, with big glass windows on the second floor and a concrete stair down to a patio and fountain, attached to the main house whose stone walls soaked up the twilight. It looked like a stage set. I could see drafting tables with lamps through the glass. Tall banana trees leaned away from the walls around the patio where a peacock gave a shattering, human-like cry. Gazing up at the darkening, reflecting glass of the empty studio, I basked in the romantic milieu and was filled with wonder: where would I end up as an architect? The picturesque scene left an indelible impression upon my imagination. What sort of man was this O’Neil Ford who worked in such a place? What sort of buildings did he design? It would be several years before I began to find out.

Frank Welch, FAIA, went on to work with O’Neil Ford for several years before opening his own office in west Texas in 1959. There he established a reputation for distinguished design, particularly with his commissions for single-family houses. He eventually moved his practice to Dallas where he continues leading his firm, Frank Welch & Associates. Welch is also the author of Philip Johnson & Texas, published in 2000 by the University of Texas Press. This article is excerpted from his recently completed memoir with permission of the author.

Texas Architect, Jan/Feb 2012